It had been a dangerous sport--for the younger werewolves--to taunt those who would see them dead. Danny had done it a hundred times, but this time, the Hunters were armed with silver bullets and the werewolves didn't have a chance.
Luke fell first--and the bloodthirsty men fell upon him with their shining knives to take his pelt. Then Brandon, shot twice; the second shot flinging him head over heels like a boneless hunk of meat.
The first shot that burrowed into Danny's shoulder only gave him a moment's pause; he ran for his life, now, his breath harsh in his throat, sheer panic pushing past the pain of the bullet lodged in his shoulder. They had never had silver bullets before. Why now?
The second bullet skimmed off the ground in front of him; the third felled him as neatly as a bullet to the brain.
Danny skidded to a stop against a tree, unable to catch his breath. The bullet's trajectory had torn through both his stomach and his chest--it had missed his heart, but only just.
The Hunter approached with his gun cocked and ready, but he lowered it when he saw the bloody hole in Danny's pelt.
"A pity," he growled, and spit upon the dying werewolf. "This one's ruined!"
Perhaps it was the man's disdain for Danny's life that gave him strength. Perhaps it was the deaths of his two best friends, or the fact that Danny knew without a doubt that he was dying. He shifted shape as the man turned his back to look for his comrades, then found enough strength to attack.
With the element of surprise on his side, the struggle for the gun did not take long at all.
Tears, mixed with blood, stung his eyes as he shoved the gun under the man's slack chin and pulled the trigger. Only then did he allow himself to collapse on top of the gun, and let the darkness of death carry him away.
But when Danny opened his eyes, he wasn't dead. A human woman, with frizzy red hair, and glasses perched on the edge of her nose, knelt over him, her hands glowing with some unearthly light. Danny reacted without a single thought. Before he could comprehend what her presence meant or even who she was, he shifted shape and attacked.
"No, wait!" She only managed those two words before he tore out her throat and collapsed again, spent and weakened by the silver bullets.
He awoke to watery sunlight peeking out from behind rain clouds, the buzz of flies, and the stink of death. When he raised his head and saw the woman's body; saw her glasses hanging askew and the pile of bloody bandages beside the melted lump of the silver bullet that had been lodged in his shoulder; when he realized who she was and what he had done--
He knew about the Healers, of course. Everyone did. Healers were neutral. They harmed no one. They went where they pleased, healing the wounded and the sick, until something happened to one of their own.
And then, they left, never to return.
Danny found the second bullet near the first one, covered with blood and gore, but not leaching poison into his body anymore. She hadn't finished healing him before he--before he killed her, but she had healed him enough for survival.
Not that he wanted to survive anymore. Not with the death of a Healer on his conscience.
With shaking hands, he found a thermos full of water and rinsed the taste of her blood from his mouth. He couldn't stop crying--his chest spasmed from the sobs and the pain from the half-healed wound. What had he done? What had he done?
If one of his pack found him here, obviously guilty, they would kill him anyway, so he might as well save them the trouble.
He found the Hunter's gun inside her small canvas tent, wrapped in the bloody remains of his shirt. There were two bullets left in the gun--surely enough to blow a hole in his brain to atone for his crime.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to the silent Healer outside. He barely recognized his voice as his own. "I'm so sorry."
When he put the barrel of the gun in his mouth, the alien taste of the metal made him gag, and a tear of pain bent him double against the Healer's cot. He straightened, panting now, knowing this was the only way to save himself from further pain. He could not bring the Healer back to life or reverse what he had done.
With shaking hands, he pushed the barrel of the gun into his mouth again, fought the urge to vomit, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger.
Danny opened his eyes to find he lay in a bed--a human bed--with white sheets and bandages wrapped around his chest and most of his head, including one eye.
At first, he had no idea what had happened. The past was a murky ocean, where half-seen things barely made it to the surface before sinking out of sight again.
He did not try to force the memories. Something tucked deep inside his mind would rather they stay buried. But when the human woman with frizzy red hair and glasses perched on the tip of her nose appeared in the doorway, the memory of what he had done returned with a vengeance that sent all coherent thought flying.
He erupted out of bed, got tangled in the bedsheets and crashed on the floor, slamming his head against the side of the bed. Something thick and viscous seeped out from under the bandage covering his eyes, and from the feel of it, it wasn't tears.
"Oh, you've knocked your eye loose again," the woman said, and set down the mug she held in her hand. Knowing Healers, it probably contained tea.
His eye? Danny couldn't catch his breath. A band of pain tightened around his chest every time he tried to breath, and blackness rimmed what was left of his vision. His chest spasmed.
"Y-you--" He could not help but force the words to come. "Y-you're--you're dead!"
The woman smiled sadly. "So are you."
This was far too much for Danny's mind to comprehend. He let the darkness surround him and take him away to a place where he didn't have to remember what he had done, or consider what might happen next.
The next time he opened his eyes--his eye--the woman sat beside him, reading a paperback book. When she realized he was awake, she tucked a scrap of paper in the book to save her place, then folded her hands, no doubt waiting for him to collapse into hysterics again.
But Danny couldn't think of a single word that wouldn't send him barreling down into madness once more. He couldn't think, or speak, so he just watched her, not even realizing that tears coursed down his cheeks until she used a scrap of cloth to wipe them away.
"My name is Genevieve," she said.
Somehow, knowing her name only made his crime so much worse. He clenched both hands into fists and tried to ignore the shooting pain through his bandaged eye.
"I-I-I--" He had to take a deep breath just to make the attempt to finish the sentence, and almost choked. "I-I- k-k-k-- I--"
"Yes, you did," Genevieve said gravely. "How do you feel?"
Desperately, Danny latched onto the last thing she had said to him before the darkness had risen to carry him away. "I-I'm d-dead?"
"Evidently so," Genevieve said, much too calmly. "I believe you shot yourself, and did a very good job at blowing out your brains."
"B-but--" Maybe, if he had blown out his brains, that was why it was so hard for him to comprehend what had happened. "H-how--"
"I'm not certain," Genevieve said, and for the first time, she seemed a bit uncertain. "I woke up here--this is my cottage, by the way--and then a few hours later, you appeared in my garden." She pursed her lips. "You smashed an entire row of tomatoes."
"I'm sorry," Danny whispered, the tears leaving him blind. "I-I'm s-so s-sorry." He had no idea if he was apologizing for murdering her or for the tomatoes--or which, in her mind, was the worst crime.
"I gave you my name, will you give me yours?"
Danny's breath hitched in his throat. "D-Daniel," he whispered. "My--my f-friends called m-me Danny."
His friends who were dead now, victims of a Hunter's gun and a sharpened blade.
"How old are you, Danny?" Genevieve asked.
Danny closed his good eye so he didn't have to look at her face. "S-Sixteen. I w-was. Sixteen." He tried to cover his face with his hands, but she took his hands and held them gently in her grasp. "Not anymore." He choked then, on the import of what that meant. Not anymore. Not ever anymore.
He was dead, after all. Dead.
And you couldn't recover from death.
12 years later
It was the most boring vacation in the world. Camping was bad enough, but camping with his parents in the middle of Nowheresville, Ohio with his baby sister was torture. Matt scowled. Especially when both his Mom and Dad had gone to some stupid potluck with one of the other families camping across the way, which meant that he had to watch Bethie, even though she was supposed to be asleep. At least his parents had let him bring a TV, even though it was only a five inch screen and too snowy to watch. It didn't have cable, either, which was yet another reason not to go camping.
"This is the stupidest vacation I've ever been on in my whole life!" Matt said, loud enough to make Bethie laugh.
"Tupid!" she shouted, and banged a spoon on one side of her crib. "Tupid! Tupid!"
"You're not supposed to say that, Bethie," Matt said, and wondered if his parents would get mad when they heard her new word. "Say something else!"
"Mawk!" Bethie laughed, her blonde curls bobbing around her chubby cheeks. She wasn't that bad, for a sister, but she was--still--a girl, after all. "Tupid! Tupid Matt!"
"Thanks a lot," Matt muttered, and opened the fridge to get her some juice.
Their mother hadn't wanted to leave them alone. Matt had been forced to promise to stay in the camper with the door locked. His father had made him promise not to start a fire, so roasted marshmallows were out. His mother had only told him eighteen times where the emergency flares were kept--they were too far out in the boonies for cell phones to work.
"Be in bed by ten o'clock, and we'll be home by eleven," Matt muttered under his breath as he poured the juice for Bethie. He glanced out the tiny kitchen window at the picnic table and tried not to feel frightened. Twelve-year-old boys were not afraid of the dark. The battery-powered lantern that his father had left behind cast a warm glow on the table and the grass that surrounded it--and the shadow of a silhouette right beyond the edge of the circle of light.
Without taking his eyes off the scene out the window, Matt screwed the lid on the sippy cup and handed it backwards to Bethie, just as a little girl--not any older than his sister--toddled out of the darkness and into the circle of light.
Her face was smudged and dirty, her dress torn. She had long black hair that someone had braided, but her braid was in tatters now, and her hair hung in wisps around her face.
Matt had never seen her before. They had been at the campsite for five boring days so far, and Bethie was the youngest kid. There weren't any kids Matt's age, either. And this little girl looked--she looked lost.
As he watched, she stared at the light, a puzzled expression on her face. And then, her lower lip began to quiver and she burst into tears.
Matt glanced at Bethie, who was perfectly content, sitting in her crib with her sippy cup plastered to her face. When he glanced out the kitchen window, he saw that the little girl had sat down beside the picnic table, still crying.
He couldn't just leave her there. She was too little to be wandering around in the dark. And although he had promised his parents not to leave the camper, he thought they would understand.
Quietly, he unlocked the door and slipped outside. The little girl didn't notice him at first--she was too busy crying, but her sobs were starting to taper off now. She looked hot and tired and scared, and despite the fact that she was probably just as much of a handful as Bethie, Matt crouched down on the ground in front of her.
"Hi there." He kept his voice soft, like he was talking to a puppy.
The little girl took one look at him and screamed. Matt reacted without thinking--he pulled a pacifier out of his pants pocket and shoved it in her mouth between one breath and the next.
It worked--she started to scream again, then thought better of it and held out her arms. Tears ran down both sides of her chubby cheeks.
Gingerly, Matt picked her up. She nestled her head right under his chin and grabbed a fistful of his shirt. He could smell her wet diaper without even sniffing. Her feet were bare and filthy--and scratched. Where had she come from? How long had she been wandering around the woods? The State Park was over five thousand acres! And surely a park ranger or someone would have stopped to tell his parents if there was a missing child somewhere in the park.
Was this an emergency? Matt didn't want to light a flare without good cause. His parents were due back in an hour and a half. But if he waited until they got home, wouldn't that be kidnapping? Camping was no fun, but he didn't want to go to jail, either.
The baby was a dead weight in his arms now, sound asleep, her damp, sweaty hair teasing his nose with the scent of pine sap and pond water.
First, he had to change her diaper. Bethie didn't like it when she was wet--this little girl wouldn't like it either. And then he would wake her up and give her some food, and then see how much time had passed.
When he entered the camper with the baby in his arms, he saw that Bethie was sound asleep, her sippy cup upended and her lips pursed in a sticky pink bow. For a moment, Matt forgot his irritation at being forced to babysit. After all, if his parents hadn't gone to the potluck, he wouldn't have found the baby--and possibly saved her life.
She didn't wake up when he changed her diaper--she wore a cloth diaper with a pair of plastic panties over top. Matt set her wet diaper aside, washed his hands, and then found a baby wipe to get some of the dirt off her skin.
When he woke her up--gently, just in case she started to scream again--she yawned and waved her hands around, as if trying to shoo him away.
"Are you hungry?" Matt asked, and fished in the cabinet above the countertop--and the makeshift changing table--for a jar of baby food. He found baby crackers instead, and held the little girl as she chewed happily on what soon became a lump of wet dough in her fist.
He had drawn the line at trying to braid her hair. He wasn't all that good with girls anyway, and he didn't want to make her cry.
"Ba-Ba," the little girl said, and pointed out the window.
Matt glanced out the window just in time to see a boy about his age emerge from the darkness. He touched the top of the lantern, then knelt to pick something up off the ground that sparkled in his hand.
"Ba-Ba!" the little girl bounced in Matt's arms. "Ba-Ba!" She clapped her hands together and soggy cracker splattered everywhere.
Matt wiped a clump off his eyelid. "Is that your brother?" he asked. The boy outside was pacing around the picnic table now, moving his hands around as if he were having an animated conversation with an invisible person. Or something.
The little girl wrinkled her nose. "Bastin."
Was that the boy's name? Matt unlocked the door and stepped outside with the little girl in his arms. "Are you looking--"
The boy threw up his hands. The hair barrette--Bethie had some of them too--floated in midair for a moment, then turned to point straight towards where Matt stood.
"Bastin," the little girl said, her voice grave.
Without a word, the boy snatched the barrette out of the air, his eyes wide. He opened his mouth to speak, then stumbled backwards until he hit the picnic table bench. With a sigh--part relief and part something else--he sank down.
"Where did you find her?"
Matt lowered the little girl to the ground and let her toddle over to the boy. "Right here, about--twenty minutes ago. I changed her diaper and washed her off a bit--she was really dirty." He glanced back at the door. "I have one, too."
"One what?" The boy held the little girl for a moment, then shook her lightly. "You shouldn't run off, Mallie!"
She smiled at him. "Bastin."
"A little sister," Matt said. "Mine is two."
The boy nodded. "I--I was supposed to be watching her, but she slipped away. I thought she--I thought something had happened to her when I found--" He stopped then, as if just remembering that Matt had seen the barrette fly in midair. "You--you won't tell anyone what you saw, will you?"
Matt shrugged, uncomfortably aware that he, too, was breaking the rules. "When you--" It sounded silly, now, even though he had seen it with his own eyes, "when you made that barrette fly?"
The boy smiled. "It wasn't flying, really--it was--I was trying to locate Mallie. But I'm--I'm not supposed to--" He sighed. "I'm not even supposed to be talking to you."
"I couldn't just leave her there," Matt said. "I mean--I wouldn't have left Bethie there--"
"No, it's okay," the boy said quickly, and shifted Mallie to his other arm. He set the barrette onto the picnic table, but didn't pick it back up again. "Thank you for what you did. She probably would have wandered further, and she could have--" he sighed again, "she could have gotten hurt." For the first time, he looked around the campsite, as if just realizing where he sat. "What is this place?"
"It's a camp," Matt said, surprised he didn't know. But then again, someone who could make barrettes fly--despite the boy's words, Matt knew what he had seen--probably didn't know anything about camping. "My parents are at a potluck. I'm babysitting my sister, Bethie."
Mallie was asleep now, her eyes closed, snuggled up against the boy's neck.
"I'm Matt," he said, and wondered if the boy would offer him a name.
"Sebastian," the boy said, with only a short hesitation. "And this is my sister, Mallie, who likes to run away." He hesitated again. "I'm--babysitting as well. But she slipped past me."
"They do that," Matt replied. Bethie was especially fond of throwing and spilling anything she could get her hands on. "Do you live around here?"
"You could say that," Sebastian said. He stood, still cradling Mallie in his arms. "I should go. I'm not supposed to be here in the first place, but--thank you, Matt, for finding and caring for my sister."
"You're welcome," Matt said. "Be careful--in the dark. Do you need a flashlight?"
Sebastian smiled. "No. I can see well enough. But thank you for the offer." He turned away, just as Mallie made a small noise--almost a hiccup--and changed.
Sebastian had been holding a little girl--now he was holding a--a little dragon.
Not a lizard, not a komodo dragon, but a real dragon. With tiny little wings.
Matt stared, too shocked to speak. He pinched himself--just in case he was dreaming, but it hurt, so that meant he wasn't dreaming at all.
Which meant--which meant that Sebastian's little sister-- no. If Sebastian's little sister was a dragon, then what was Sebastian?
Matt backed away when Sebastian turned around. Mallie's little tail twitched.
"I--I won't tell--" he managed to whisper.
"She's only a little baby," Sebastian said softly. "She doesn't know any better."
"Like Bethie," Matt said. "S-she doesn't know any better either--she--"
Sebastian's arms tightened around his sister's sleeping form. "I have to go."
"I know, but--" Matt swallowed hard. "Are you--are you really--" It didn't seem right, for some reason, to come out and just ask.
So, okay. Dragons were real. What else--?
"Okay." What about Bigfoot? "If an adult sees her, though--"
"She doesn't usually run this far," Sebastian said. "She thinks it's a game. Hide and seek."
"You play hide and seek?"
"In human form, yes," Sebastian said.
Human form. Matt rubbed his arms, suddenly cold. "Oh."
"Some of us go to school, too," Sebastian said. "It's--it's near here." He hesitated. "You--you won't tell?"
"I won't tell anyone," Matt said. "I promise." Who would believe him?
"It's just that--"
"I know how to keep secrets," Matt said. "Really, I do."
"If your people found out about us--" Sebastian closed his eyes. "I am in your debt."
From the way Matt's parents talked, and what he saw on TV, debts weren't good things at all. "No--it's okay, really. Who would I tell? No one would believe me."
"There are some who would," Sebastian said darkly. He opened his eyes and held out his hand. Cupped in his palm was a sky blue marble--or something that looked like a marble. "If you are ever in need of my aid, just squeeze this in your fist and call my name. I will come if I can."
"You don't have to do that," Matt said, making no move to take the marble out of Sebastian's hand. "She was just lost, that's all. I just didn't want her to get hurt." Was it some strange custom of dragons to insist on payment for things? Matt wasn't all that well-versed on folklore, but he had read a couple of fairy tale books, and they hadn't mentioned anything like that. "My parents will be back soon," he said, torn between wanting the strangeness to end and not wanting Sebastian to vanish forever.
"Then I must go," Sebastian said. "Please? This is the only thing I can give you in payment for Mallie's life."
Reluctantly, Matt held out his hand. The marble didn't feel like anything other than a marble, just a sky-blue hunk of glass, cold and slick against Matt's skin. "Thank you," he said, and wondered if he should have said something else.
Sebastian nodded and turned to go.
"Will I ever see you again?" Matt blurted out before he could consider his words.
"It might be best if you did not," Sebastian said. "But if you need me, I will come if I can. I promise you that." He hesitated. "The spell will only work once."
He melted into the shadows before Matt could ask any more questions, leaving the barrette behind on the picnic table.
After a moment, Matt tucked the marble and the barrette into a pocket of his jeans and walked back inside of the camper. Bethie was still asleep, her blonde curls squashed against her favorite stuffed animal, a worn bunny.
Matt locked the door, put on his pajamas, and stared down at the marble and the barrette. Neither object looked like anything special at all, just a sparkly girl's barrette and a marble as blue as a summer sky.
If magic was real--if dragons were real--then what else--what else was real?
Would he ever know?
He fell asleep long after his parents returned, his mind awash in possibilities that colored his dreams.